2 at center of immigration debate get deportation stays

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First Unitarian Society church in Denver is providing refuge to Jeanette Vizguerra, a mom of four. Vizguerra's case to deport her is an immigration "enforcement priority". She is now living at the church indefinitely.

Two undocumented immigrants who hunkered down in the same Denver church to elude deportation have won victories in their fights to stay in the United States.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement granted temporary stays of removal to Jeanette Vizguerra and Arturo Hernandez, said Vizguerra’s attorney, Hans Meyer. Both had been living in the country without proper documentation for more than a decade before ICE arrested them separately this year.

Vizguerra, who has three American-born children younger than 12, is expected walk free Friday at 8:30 a.m. (10:30 a.m. ET), after securing a stay of nearly two years, Meyer said Thursday. She can remain in the United States until March 15, 2019.

She will return to her family and to work as she awaits a response to her visa application, according to the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition.

“Our system is tearing many other families apart,” Vizguerra said in a coalition news release. “I will continue to lead the fight to keep families together, to grow the capacity of sanctuary and of my community to resist deportation and exploitation.”

Hernandez also has been granted a stay of removal, Meyer said. He “was recently released from ICE detention so he can attend his daughter’s graduation,” CNN affiliate KDVR reported.

The stays will give both immigrants time to show “they have a legal basis to remain lawfully in the country,” said Hernandez’s attorney, Laura Lichter.

Vizguerra’s case — and to a lesser degree Hernandez’s — have gained international attention as perceived examples of President Donald Trump’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. Time magazine this year named Vizguerra one of its 100 Most Influential People in the world.

“Jeanette is a living example of the true American values of courage, integrity, and perseverance,” her lawyer said. “I am proud to stand alongside her as we work to secure fairness and humanity in both her visa immigration case as well as our nation’s immigration laws.”

ICE did not immediately respond Friday to CNN’s request for comment. The agency has cast recent detentions in both cases as routine.

Immigration provisions tightened

Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Jared Polis — Colorado Democrats who advocated for both undocumented immigrants — hailed ICE’s latest action both cases. The stays, Bennet said, will give both immigrants “more time to receive due process.”

“This is also a reminder that there are many more families like theirs across the country experiencing similar fear and uncertainty,” he said.

The lawmakers also had introduced so-called “private bills” on Vizguerra’s behalf. The tactic aims to address a specific person’s immigration status through legislation rather than through the ICE bureaucracy.

Immigration officials typically have delayed deportations while such bills are pending. But the Trump administration just reined in that allowance.

ICE announced last week that it is tightening its policy for granting “stays of removal in connection with private immigration bills,” the agency’s acting director, Thomas Homan wrote in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

Such private bills, Homan explained, are designed to “confer lawful permanent resident status on beneficiaries by circumventing the normal immigration law framework.”

ICE in the past has “routinely granted these stays” of deportation after getting investigative reports from the House or Senate judiciary chairs or the appropriate subcommittees on a person for whom a private bill has been introduced, Homan wrote. Such a ruling is “not mandated by law or regulation,” he added.

But the “stay mechanism” — triggered by the introduction of bills that are “rarely, if ever enacted” — also could hinder ICE from “from removing aliens” who “pose a risk to public safety or national security,” Homan wrote.

In that vein, Homan wrote that ICE will change its policy on private bills in four key ways:

ICE will issue a deportation stay “only if the Chair of the full Committee expressly makes a written request,” not merely when a request for an investigative report is made. ICE won’t grant a beneficiary more than one stay of removal. The duration of a stay “will be limited” to six months and possibly a one-time 90-day extension, if committee chairs request it. If ICE finds “derogatory information” about someone after a stay is issued, the agency “will take appropriate action, including … removal.”

Undocumented for decades

Vizguerra came to the United States in 1997 from Mexico without proper documents. She arrived with her husband and eldest daughter, who now participates in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which lets undocumented people brought to the country as kids attend school and work.

She landed on ICE’s radar in 2009, when she was pulled over and charged with, among other minor violations, “attempted possession of a forged instrument.” That involved a job application on which she used a made-up — not stolen — Social Security Number, Meyer has said.

Still, she was allowed to stay in the country, provided she checked in occasionally with ICE. After Trump took office, Vizguerra decided to skip her scheduled check-in, and instead took sanctuary at the First Unitarian Church in Denver. She eventually moved to the First Baptist Church of Denver, logging 86 days in hiding before her stay of removal was granted.

Hernandez, who is Mexican, overstayed his visitor’s visa in 2003. He came to ICE’s attention and was told to leave the country in 2010, when he was arrested on “local criminal charges,” the agency has said, though his supporters say he has no convictions.

The father of two took refuge at the First Unitarian church in 2014, until he got a letter telling him he was no longer an “enforcement priority,” he has said. He was detained again by ICE in April.

By Joe Sterling and Keith Allen